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In my February message I used a recent Dilbert cartoon to highlight our penchant for asking inconvenient, probing questions. Of course, engineers aren’t the only profession which emphasizes rigorous analysis and critical thinking. Today I’d like to move on to a more complicated and essential role that really defines engineers—design. In my November message I noted that the term “engineer” derives from the same root word that gives us the adjective “ingenious.” So I’d like to briefly explore just what constitutes “ingenious design,” and how we don‘t just aspire to it but how we achieve it!

The important thing to recognize about design is that it might start with the need to thoroughly understand a vexing problem, and it might progress to one or more great creative ideas, but ultimately it is much more: design seeks to actually BUILD SOMETHING. During design the engineer is confronted with the need to consider crucial practicalities. The practicalities include effectiveness, constructability, special resource requirements, costs (including construction, O&M, and opportunity costs), construction schedule, adverse impacts, design-life, and sustainability. These practicalities lead to the key steps that define design—identification and detailed evaluation of feasible alternatives followed by optimization of the preferred alternative. In undertaking these steps, civil engineers must often address issues on a large, public scale. This inevitably draws other experts and interested parties into the process: economists, contractors, politicians, community leaders, environmental and neighborhood groups, etc. The process of civil engineering design thus places a premium on the “art of compromise.” Early in their career the EIT will probably pick up on the design meme: of a choice between faster, cheaper, and better—you can only have two.

Ingenious design is thus the practice of developing an elegant compromise to satisfy the competing demands for what constitutes a successful highway, bridge, levee, pump station, large facility, public building, restored coastal wetland, etc. More than analysis, good design depends on the engineer’s experience—their assimilation of decades of scientific, technical, construction, financial, managerial, and interpersonal lessons learned. Including the most important lesson: what compromises to reject!

This leads me to three conclusions. The first is it behooves us to closely study examples of ingenious design. This Centennial Celebration year our Section has been engaged in the process of identifying historic projects throughout the state. A final Master List of Historic Projects, prepared by a “Super Committee” of eight past Section Presidents, will soon be published on our website. The Master List includes over 100 sterling examples in a range of disciplines. If you’ve worked in one of these disciplines for many years, then you should be familiar with the historic projects from that category. If you’re just beginning your career, then the list provides a good starting point to learn more about ingenious design in your chosen field.

The second conclusion is we need to do more to cultivate and champion the ingenious designers among us. Many years ago, when our profession was smaller, it was common for civil engineers to promote their colleagues who were the experienced discipline leaders within their community, no matter where they were employed. Today, in the Age of Google, I think we often succumb to the fantasy that we can quickly become experts ourselves. Competition has an important role in our profession, as does the large, multi-disciplinary engineering corporation. However, we lose something special when we don’t honor, respect, and seek out the truly ingenious among us. To this end, I am pleased that our Section has recently formed a special committee to prepare nominations for ASCE Distinguished Members.

My third and final conclusion is our profession should stand up and honor examples of ingenious design. Given our highly public role, prominent recognition of superior projects is our best way of telling others what it is we really do and what we want to do more of in the future! The Section and Branches have come up with six posters celebrating Louisiana civil engineering achievements. Please buy one or more, frame them, and display them at your office. Even better, put some up in your local high school’s physics classroom. And please come to the Centennial Celebration Gala on August 9th to help us recognize our finalists in 15 categories of Historic Louisiana Civil Engineering Projects!

Look for an email announcement in mid-May with program details on
The Louisiana ASCE Centennial Celebration Gala
August 9th at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge

Details will include ticket purchase information and special offers from your Branch!
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